Sunday, June 17, 2012

Jews and the Zodiac, pt. 1 - a Good Sign

Beit Alpha Synagogue floor
Modern Jews are largely ignorant of the degree to which astrology and, particularly, the zodiac, has played a  role in Jewish tradition. Famously, and frequently quoted, the Talmud says, Ain mazzel b'Israel ("Israel is not affected by the planets/fortune.") But remember, this is only one voice in the Talmud, the only religious document in the world that asserts one position, and its direct contradiction, simultaneously. Thus you can find opponents and proponents of the ideology of astrology and the influence of the stars on human affairs (even if not the affairs of Jews), and a variety of intermediate positions, all in the Talmud, and beyond.

The two great zodiac traditions we know today are the Greek and the Chinese, though many cultures have their particular systems for mapping the sky. While we may have gotten our start under the influence of Babylonian astrology, the great bulk of what has been preserved in the mesorah reflects our participation in the Greek tradition (See the 5th Century synagogue floor-mosaic above). Of course, Jews adapted it in ways suited to Jewish monotheism. Thus Sefer ha-Razim, for example, asserts that the zodiac is governed by angelic principalities, making the the system of destiny from the stars integral to the divine order.

But let's start slowly. With a seemingly simple word, mazzal  (or mazal, or as the moderns say it, mazel). Of course the ancient Israelites, like everyone else, had only few permanent celestial features they could see with the naked eye - the sun, moon, fixed stars, and five "wandering" stars, the planets.

In biblical Hebrew, mazal means "planet," or secondarily, "star" (there is a more specific word for star khokhav, as well as multiple words for the sun and the moon). Thus,  mazzalot (pl.) could mean "planets" as a group or "constellations." (Isaiah 13:10; Job 38:31-33).

These remote lights were assumed early on to be "signs" to humanity (Gen. 1:14-15) and the Children of Israel (Gen. 12, 15, et al). Hence the expression, Mazal tov/Siman tov! "A good star/a good sign [for you]!" i.e., "congrats!" So it is not surprising that more elaborate theories of how to interpret other meanings for these signs evolved.

The earliest evidence of Jewish divining the skies for esoteric meaning and messages appears in the Dead Sea Scrolls (2nd century BCE). There two fragments in particular, 4Q318 (Brontologion) and 4Q186 (Horoscope). The first concerns itself with brontology, the mantic interpretation of weather, such as thunder (and, often, transient celestial events, like comets and meteor showers). 4Q318 also includes some skeletal references to the babylonian zodiac. The other document, Q4186, is particularly of interest because it shows the effort to tease out the human implication of what unfolds in the heavens, the essence of what we mean when we use the word astrology today.

So this is interesting, but given the often sectarian nature of the material preserved at Qumran, we need to be cautious about any conclusions we can draw from it about the rabbinic tradition of Judaism. But it is enough for now to know that Jewish interest is the stars is very old, indeed.